Friday, September 24, 2010

Lourdes: The Baths

The Baths
Friday, September 24, 2010
8:00 a.m.

Our Lady of Lourdes identified an underground spring to Saint Bernadette. Today, you can bathe in the water from that spring. I decided to do this. Everyone warned that the women’s lines were hours long. They advised me to arrive well before it opened and to plan my day accordingly.

The baths were open from 9 – 11 a.m. and again from 2 – 4 p.m. Since I had only one day available to do this, I decided to aim for the 9 – 11 slot, using the 2 – 4 slot as backup. I didn’t know what they did at closing time; did they send everyone away who had been waiting all that time? I planned to get in line by 7:15 a.m. At that time, I may not be first in line, but I expected to get in.

When the alarm rang the next morning at 6:30, the baths suddenly seemed less important than getting a bit more sleep.

Dragging myself out of bed at 7:30, I was glad to see that last night’s thunderstorms were over and, while the skies weren’t clear, it stopped raining. I put on the only outfit I had: a sleeveless summer top, a light cotton sweater, a pair of tights and flat shoes. I grabbed my raincoat just in case I needed it.

When I reached the baths at 8:00 a.m., all 17 covered rows of seating (with 12 – 14 women each) were full, so I filed in behind about 20 women standing in line outside between two white metal bars. The bars were set far enough apart for one person to stand comfortably. Two could squeeze side-by-side.

As I waited, a few drops of water fell on my head from the trees above. No big deal. I looked at the sky: clear on one side, and dark and foreboding on the other. Ha – like life. I hoped that the clear side was pushing out the dark one.

The two women ahead of me looked more like they were going out to a club than to the baths. In their mid to late twenties, tall and thin with long, straight hair, stylish clothing, nice make-up and finished nails, they held themselves confidently. One of them took a tissue to carefully wipe off the railing before she leaned on it. It reminded me of something my mother would do, and I briefly thought, they must be Italian.

Soon, I noticed the conversation of the three Italian women behind me, who were about my mother’s age. They stood on the shorter side of average and a bit stocky, well-dressed with beautiful jewelry and handbags.

My Italian is rusty and like a toddler’s at best, but it sounded like one of the women needed to go to the bathroom. So, I moved aside to let her pass, as did all the women ahead of me.

She was almost to the front of the line when, whoosh – a thin woman with short grey hair who stood all of 4’11” blocked the way. Standing squarely next to the metal barrier on her right, she slid four long, thin candles across her stomach until they reached to the metal bar on the left, effectively blocking the narrow pass. The Italian lady talked with her, but Candle Lady apparently did not understand Italian. So, Italian Lady walked back along the line to return to her spot.

In my observation, every group of Italian women has one strong personality who directs the group, and this was no different. Strong Italian Lady said, in no uncertain terms and in a slightly demeaning tone (loosely translated), “What do you mean, she said no? You just go back there, say, ‘Mi Scusi’, then you walk by.”

They argued a bit over this (as the Italians I know do) but Strong Italian Lady won and Bathroom Italian Lady tried again to make her way through the line. And again, when she reached the Candle Lady, whoop, the candles came out and blocked the way.

This time Candle Lady wouldn’t talk or even look at Bathroom Italian Lady. She just stood there facing forward, holding her candles sideways.

I thought this was hilarious and giggled out loud. Strong Italian woman started to talk with me. In Italian.

“Non parla Italano,” I said, meaning to say, “I don’t speak Italian” but I actually said, “You don’t speak Italian,” essentially confirming the fact that I don’t.

“Ah, comprende Italiano, no?” she asked with a knowing look. “Un poco?”

“Pocino pocino,” I replied, making a motion of “tiny” with my thumb and forefinger.

Bathroom Italian Lady returned again, defeated and annoyed.

More words, but this time from the girls in front of us, confirming they were Italian. Gorgeous Strong Italian Girl spoke up.

“That woman is crazy. You have to go to the bathroom.” She waved her hand sharply at the gentleman monitoring the line, as if she wanted to order a drink at the bar, and he came right over.

“She needs to go to the bathroom.”

The man told Bathroom Italian Lady to come with him, and she left the line and followed. A few minutes later, as she made her way back to us through the line, she shot daggers with her eyes at Candle Lady. Such good Catholics. I guess we all have room for improvement. As for me, it was good for another laugh.

At some point, a woman started to lead the rosary in French, with intermittent hymns. I love the rhythm of the rosary in any language. It is repetitive and meditative and speaks to something my soul, even if I don’t know what they are saying.

After an entire rosary in French, another woman started one in Italian. The Italians around me responded, almost as in a Pavlovian way.

At one point, the Ave Maria was sung, and everyone automatically sang the refrain.

The rosary continued in French and Italian, French and Italian, interrupted only by hymns, until the doors opened at 9:00. A man gave instructions in French, and several of the women seated in front moved into the bath area.

Though the line now moved ahead, the Italian women and I were still outside, now standing in light rain. Strong Italian Lady shared her umbrella, then offered a chocolate square to me. I said gracie for the umbrella and no thank you for the chocolate, clearly offending her.

“Oomph” she said, simultaneously brushing me off with her hand while returning the chocolate to her designer handbag. I recognized that sound / motion pair. It meant, “Fine. Your loss. See if I offer you anything else.” Fortunately, she kept her umbrella up for me. I was starting to get cold and didn’t want to be wet, too.

The irony was not lost on me that I was headed to a bath. With water.

About five or ten minutes later, the line moved forward again and we could sit on the benches under the roof. I sat between the two gorgeous girls from Naples and the three older Italian women. They occasionally conversed across me, and I loved hearing all the Italian.

By now, I was definitely cold. I pulled a hat and gloves from my handbag, which helped a little but not a lot. They were letting women move ahead at roughly the rate of 4 women every 5 minutes, so the line kept moving enough to give me hope. Each time, we would either stand and walk to our new seats, or shuffle our butts along the bench, depending on how far we got to move.

The rosary and singing continued. Women got up to go to the bathroom and returned to their seats. Though it was still pouring rain, husbands arrived and waved from the walkway to check on their wives in line.

When the Italian women’s husbands arrived, one woman said critically, “Look at him. No umbrella. Crazy.”

It made me smile that her welcoming comment about him was basically a critical one, and that he obviously didn’t really mind.

When I was about halfway to the baths, a woman on the bench in front of me waved me toward her. I leaned in, wondering what on earth she could need from me but happy to help. Smiling, she grabbed my upper arms and rubbed them to help me stay warm. I didn’t realize that I actually looked as cold as I felt. I considered leaving to take a hot shower, but the line moved just enough to keep me in it. Besides, if all these women were doing it, I can do it.

Later, Strong Italian woman reached over to me and rubbed my arms and back. It reminded me a little of a story I once saw about the Holocast: As the women were headed to the showers, the older women took care of the younger ones. I tried to push that image out of my mind.

After three hours of sitting, standing, talking, rosaries and hymns, we made it to the front bench. I had no idea what these baths would be like, but I suspected they would be cold. It is spring water, after all. I wasn’t excited about more cold. I don’t even like a cold swimming pool on a hot day. I assumed they would be outside, in the rain.

But, the next step was inside to change and there, things felt like they moved a bit faster. I waited so long to get here, I wanted it to go a bit more slowly. But, not a choice.

A woman with a warm smile appeared from behind a curtain and beckoned me into one of the changing rooms. As I approached, she asked what language I speak. A woman who spoke English with a lovely French accent suddenly appeared and led me further into the room. It felt like a group changing room in a discount women’s clothing store, except that each of the five women changing had another woman behind her, holding a blue sheet for privacy.

My helper gave instructions on how to change (“take everything off, and if you are wearing a bra, hold it in your hand”) and pointed to the hooks for my clothes. She held a blue sheet around me for privacy while I undressed, then wrapped it around my shoulders and told me to sit in the plastic chair that is under the clothes hooks.

I noticed that the floor is surprisingly dry for a bathing area through which hundreds of people just passed. Also surprisingly clean.

My sheet is a bit wet, though, and it grosses me out to sit in a plastic chair that held who knows how many naked butts. I opt to stand. I now feel warmer than I did outside, but still a little chilled.

My helper repeated instructions that I saw on a wall chart: Collect your thoughts and choose an intention. Stand in front of the curtain, and I will be called when it is my turn.

I tried to focus on my intention, but I I could hear a big splash in the bath. Did someone fall in? Do we need to jump in? It made me wonder what was behind the curtain. I now assumed that I would step outside into the rain and have to jump into a big, deep puddle with lots of other women.

I was next. The curtain opened, and I was led through.

I’m not so good at going with the flow and like to know the lay of the land before I dive into anything, so I was a bit disoriented. Plus, I wanted to take everything in and it all just seemed to be moving so quickly.

Thankfully, the baths were inside! There were walls around it, and I was the only one going into it right now. The bath itself was stone, long and narrow in front of me, with two steps leading down into it. I wondered if I could just do a step or two, if that would count or if I would have to take the plunge.

The water was surprisingly clear. I don’t like hot tubs because they either feel like I’m getting into someone else’s bath water, or that I am soaking in chemicals. But frankly, I have seen more backwash in my glass of drinking water than there was in that tub, so I was amazed and felt okay about going in. Not that anyone would have asked me.

Two women, one standing on either side of the bath, each held one side of a twisted white sheet, wringing it out together as the water fell into the tub. I was relaxing a bit, then surprised as the woman who led me in now held my shoulders while she reminded me to focus on my intention. She directed me to raise my right arm, which I found a bit confusing, so she did it for me. Then suddenly, the three women removed the blue sheet and replaced it with an ICE COLD WET ONE.

I was adjusting to the shock of having a cold sheet wrapped tightly around my body when I was told to take the first step into the bath.

I did and, as cold as the water was, the sheet was colder and distracting me. I really wanted to get rid of it and just do this without it on. I also wanted to go slowly into the bath, like I do with a cold swimming pool, but the other two women (who were previously wringing the sheet) grabbed one arm each and insistently led me into the deeper part of the bath. One of them told me to sit while my brain responded “Are you crazy? This is freezing!” Then they told me to relax and basically pushed me down until I was sitting in the bath.

I was so focused on freezing that I didn’t exactly revel in the experience. I think that I briefly remembered my intention but definitely forgot to say the prayer I was supposed to say while in the water, and before I knew it, they pulled my arms up to guide me out of the bath and were saying the post-bath prayers of thanks to Our Lady of Lourdes and to Saint Bernadette. I was supposed to say those with them, but I was more than two steps behind.

They put my bra on, replaced the blue sheet, and guided me through the curtain to the dressing room.

When I started to get dressed (again, with someone holding the blue sheet for privacy), I noticed that most of my body was already dry. How on earth was that?

I walked out of the bath house alone. It was pouring outside, and I had no umbrella. Cold bath. Cold rain water. Water was everywhere.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You wrote such a beautiful narrative on this experience. I could almost feel the water! I'm glad I read your experience so that I can try to focus on the "intentions" and the prayers when I get there. I could see how the cold cloths can get distracting. Thanks. Enjoyed your write-up!